The Huffington Post UK: Masterstroke or Misstep?

A few weeks ago, an interesting proposition landed in my inbox: would I be interested in contributing to the politics section of the soon-to-be launched Huffington Post UK?

To be clear, when I say the proposition was interesting, I don’t mean I was interested in accepting it: as a general rule, I try to only write for free when I have something to promote. I mean I was interested to learn that Arianna Huffington and Aol were willing to direct time and resources into launching HuffPost UK: a project that, if you believe some UK media critics, is so clearly doomed to failure.

You don’t need me to tell you that the Huffington Post US [Disclosure: HuffPost is owned by Aol which owns TechCrunch which BLAH BLAH BLAH] has been a huge success. With its mixture of partisan editorialising and celebrity soap-boxing, it provided a counterpoint to the stuffiness and balance of much of the American news media. At the same time, thanks to a billion slideshows of cats suffering wardrobe malfunctions, it managed to generate sufficient advertising dollars to hire a team of full-time reporters to cover real news, thus positioning itself as a semi-credible rival to traditional newspapers.

And yet, for all of HuffPost’s undoubted success in the US, it’s hard to see how a dedicated UK edition can do anywhere near as well — and not just because Britain has barely a fifth of the population of the US (California and Texas combined offer more potential readers than the whole of the UK).

For one thing, as Toby Young argues in the Telegraph, UK readers are less interested than their American cousins in what celebrities think about the world. Articles like Rob Low complaining about the “Household Betrayal” of his former housekeeper are a real traffic driver in the US; in the UK they would be met with howls of indifference.

But, of course, celebrities represent a tiny percentage of HuffPost’s roster of contributors. For every Hollywood actor, the site boasts a hundred left-wing politicians with votes to win, a thousand authors with books to promote and a million professional writers with axes to grind — surely they’ll keep the high quality content flowing? Perhaps — but there too HuffPost UK has a problem, in the form of the Guardian’s highly trafficked, left-leaning blog platform Comment Is Free (CiF). Named after the mantra of the newspaper’s former owner and editor, CP Scott (‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’), CiF already boasts an impressive list of high profile contributors, opining on everything from the recent elections in Turkey to the emotional depth of a cow.

More impressive still, is the fact that CiF pays many of its contributors (including, occasionally, me) for their work, with rates hovering around £90 ($140) for an 800 word column. It’s not much, but it’s infinity times more than HuffPost UK is offering. In the US, Arianna Huffington was able to use her considerable personal influence (and magnetism) to seduce high-profile contributors into helping get her site off the ground. Since then, times have changed: Huffington’s unwavering magnetism has to compete with the fact that many people would rather sell their kids into slavery than work for free for America Online. And in any case, if writers really want to work for free, they can always contribute to the HuffPost’s US site and enjoy far, far more visibility.

All of which raises the sickening specter of a site filled only with the linkbait crap and celebrity gossip that HuffPost UK can get for free. But even there HuffPost UK faces a challenge in attracting an audience, with stiff competition coming from the UK’s rich and vibrant tabloid press. The London-based Daily Mail is sucking up page impression by the million in both the UK and the US with its populist mix of celebrity fluff, royal rumors and
‘x-gives-you-cancer’ horseshit. Toggling quickly back and forth between the front pages of HuffPost UK and, one could be forgiven for thinking the former is simply a differently formatted version of the latter, albeit with the odd bit of CiF mixed in by mistake.

So why then, given all those challenges, would Huffington think that launching in the UK is so important? Could it be that, having studied at Cambridge, Arianna craves some approval from the old continent? Hardly. Or perhaps now that she’s spending AOL’s money rather than her own, Huffington simply doesn’t give a damn about the economics. That theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either: as any starving HuffPost contributor will testify, Arianna’s grip on the purse strings hasn’t shown any signs of loosening since the acquisition — with dead-weight staffers being fired to pay for new editorial hires.

Which just leaves one tantalizing possibility: that, as with the sale to AOL (which proved to be a breathtaking external coup d’etat), or even founding HuffPost in the first place (many media pundits wrote it off as a vanity project doomed to bankruptcy and failure), Arianna Huffington understands the economics of online content better than her critics.

Huffington has made no secret of her desire to expand the HuffPost internationally, having already tested the waters with HuffPost Canada — so why not choose the UK as her first overseas outpost? The US and the UK are, after all, two countries divided by a common language and, if anything, the existence of the Comment is Free and the popularity of the Daily Mail prove that there’s definitely a market in the UK for the HuffPost’s editorial mix. In any case, it’s hardly a huge financial risk: by all accounts the HuffPost only employs a handful of staff in its UK office, certainly far fewer than can be found at either Daily Mail or Guardian HQ. If Huffington gets the original journalism / aggregation balance right — as she has in the US — the site could become profitable, very quickly. At worst, it can add a few million page impressions to HuffPost’s global reach without hemorrhaging too much cash.

Certainly Huffington seems pleased with the initial performance of the site — and rejects the idea that the HuffPost has to compete with existing publications like the Mail or the Guardian at all. While working on this post, I emailed her some of my concerns about the UK launch and asked her for an on-the-record response. Less than a minute later, her reply arrived…

“We don’t need to beat anyone to succeed. This either-or is a very old model…not about the linked economy in which we operate. We are launching in 12 countries. Launching in [the UK] first outside North America made perfect sense. And we were lucky to launch on a big news day [the News of the World phone-hacking scandal] that showed how Huffpost — liveblog and all-original reporting and aggregation — delivers the news in real time with all the engagement tools our readers want.”

So there.